Pope Francis will travel to Thailand in November, the Vatican said Friday, in a visit to Asia that will sweep in Japan and the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which were both decimated by atomic bombs in 1945.
It has been nearly four decades since a pontiff visited Thailand and Japan, both Buddhist-majority countries.
The late Pope John Paul II went to the largely Shinto Buddhist Japan in 1981, and he travelled to Thailand three years later where he met with the late King Rama IX and the Queen Mother.
The Vatican announced Friday the current pontiff will travel to Thailand from November 20-23, and then Japan to November 26.
In Bangkok, Pope Francis will “preside at religious ceremonies and pastoral visits to Catholic communities”, said a press statement from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand.
Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, the Pope’s second cousin who runs a Catholic girls’ school in Thailand, told AFP she would be with Pope Francis during his Bangkok visit.
“This visit shows his desire to improve the dialogue to other religions to bring a message of peace,” she told AFP.
The four-day papal visit will coincide with the 350th anniversary of the founding of the “Mission de Siam”, which was first established by Pope Clement IX in 1669.
– A-bomb sites –
Today, the Christian community make up an estimated 1 percent in Thailand, with the majority residing in the north and many within ethnic minority groups like the Jarai and the Akha.
The Vatican also provided more details of a visit to Japan, which was announced in January. The Pope had wanted to work in the country as a missionary in his youth but the plan was abandoned following a lung operation.
The Shinto Buddhist country is home to some 450,000 Catholics and 510,000 Protestants.
“During the latter visit, the Holy Father will visit Tokyo, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima,” said the statement, adding that an official schedule will be provided on a later date.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were decimated after the US dropped atomic bombs at the end of Second World War in 1945.
More than 140,000 people were killed in Hiroshima, while the port city of Nagasaki suffered a death toll of 74,000 after the Americans dropped the atomic bombs.
The Pope has referenced the bombings in the past.
In January last year, he printed cards with a 1945 photo of victims of the Nagasaki bombing, inscribing the words “the fruit of war” in Italian on the card above his signature.
The photo, captured by American photographer Joe O’Donnell, showed a young boy standing ramrod straight carrying his dead younger brother on his back while waiting for his turn at a cremation site.
Since Pope Francis’ election five years ago, he has made two trips to Asia, visiting the Philippines and Sri Lanka in 2014, followed by Myanmar and Bangladesh last year.